I’ve been struggling with this question for a month.
It’s been that long since a Democratic state legislator rose during the Q&A after a speech and asked me a deceptively simple thing: What should Democrats do now? What should their message be?
I had no idea how to answer that, nor even any confidence that I was the one to do it. It seemed to me it was a question not for a professional kvetcher uninterested in the nuts and bolts of political machinery, but, rather, for some high-powered operative like Donna Brazile or James Carville.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
But then, it is high-powered operatives who’ve led the party into its present cul de sac.
Indeed, as internecine fighting loudly fractures the GOP, Democrats quietly struggle with a civil war of their own. Largely shut out of power at the state and federal levels, the party is torn between pragmatists who want to chase Donald Trump’s voters with a centrist economic agenda and insurrectionists a la Bernie Sanders who want to move hard to the left.
What should Democrats do? I finally have an answer.
The Democrats need to move left.
That conclusion does not come easily to me. I am, by nature, a centrist deeply suspicious of political extremes, which I consider Kryptonite to thoughtfulness. I remain convinced no ideology has a monopoly on good ideas. Moreover, I’m skeptical the agenda proffered by the likes of Sen. Sanders – free college? – is politically or economically do-able.
But here’s the thing: The center is all but gone. That was, in fact, one of the points I made in the speech that inspired the lawmaker’s question: We have, I said, become a country dominated by its extremes.
A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that the percentage of Democrats and Republicans holding extremely negative views of the opposite party has more than doubled since 1994; Pew also found that, while 64 percent of Republicans in ‘94 held opinions that were to the right of the average Democrat, these days 92 percent do. And 94 percent of Democrats are now to the left of the GOP median.
So the right is moving further right, the left, further left and the center, as the poet Yeats observed, “cannot hold.” And it is a fantasy for a party heavily populated by African Americans, Muslims, the LGBTQ, immigrants and other marginalized peoples yearning to breathe free in an increasingly oppressive environment, to think it can attract angry, older white voters who believe that what America really needs is to be made “great again.”
No one manufactures tents that big.
What other option, then, do Democrats have but to move left, exploiting the anger, energy and enthusiasm to be found there? It’s an imperfect solution for all the reasons noted above, but it has one advantage: It clarifies the choices, makes them stark. That would be a good thing just now.
Say what you will about Trump: He was definitive, and did not lack for boldness in his appeal to white resentments and rage. What if Democrats were as bold and definitive as he, but for universal health care, sane immigration reform, a living wage, fixing the broken justice system, jobs training and day care for families on public assistance, addressing climate change, and not blowing up the world in manhood-measuring contests with Asian dictators? What if they were pugnacious and uncompromising in the service of simple decency? Of inclusion and compassion? Of just treating people right?
If these days you must be an extremist, well … there are worse things to be an extremist for.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.